State’s Returning Heroes program put vets to work protecting watershed and fighting wildfires

State’s Returning Heroes program put vets to work protecting watershed and fighting wildfires

02 May 2015

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USA– The towering ponderosa pine wavered briefly before crashing to the ground, unleashing a spray of needles and broken branches. The hard-hatted crew of mostly military veterans with the state’s Returning Heroes program set about cutting the trunk into sections and stacking the wood near the ranger station at Hyde Memorial State Park.

A dozen stumps marked what was left of other trees felled by the crew in an 80-acre thinning project in the park along Little Tesuque Creek. The Returning Heroes crew is part of an ongoing state effort to provide veterans with new job skills and work.

“It’s good labor that is outside,” said 53-year-old Greg Hesch, a Santa Fe native and U.S. Air Force veteran. “It helps you free the mind up and free the spirit.”

The Returning Heroes program began in 2013 as a pilot program. It was so successful that Gov. Susana Martinez sought state funding to expand it. Now in its first full year, the program has 25 veterans trained and certified to work on forest-thinning projects, prescribed fires and wildfires. The crews learn to handle chain saws, fell trees correctly and to work within the structured incident command system used across the United States to respond to disasters ranging from wildfires to hurricanes.

More than $1.8 million in state money was appropriated by Martinez and lawmakers to support the program for two years.

Hesch, who flew missions around the world in the 1980s, said integrating back into civilian life isn’t easy. Working on forest thinning and with wildland firefighters is a good fit. “It has a natural appeal to most military veterans as opposed to making parts in a factory or in office,” said Hesch, who had a hard time working other jobs. In forestry projects and on forest fires “the command structure gives a sense of order and a sense of comfort established. You know who you are reporting to and who reports to you. It removes a lot of ambiguity.”

U.S. Army veteran Tessa Filip, 30, agrees that the familiar command structure is a benefit of working with forests and fighting fires through the Returning Heroes program.

Filip, a six-year veteran who served a tour in Iraq, said she had an office job with the U.S. Department of Labor when she first returned home. “It wasn’t for me,” she said.

Filip grew up camping and hiking with her parents, who worked with federal land agencies, and wanted to work outdoors. “I was thinking timber sales or recreation,” said Filip, who worked on fire crews for several seasons before joining the State Forestry program. “My dad kept talking about firefighting and here I am.”

The state has launched other partnerships with private businesses and through job fairs in an effort to find work for 4,000 unemployed New Mexico veterans.

Alan Martinez, deputy Cabinet secretary for the New Mexico Department of Veterans’ Services, said more than 150 vets have received job training or been hired in the last two years through partnerships with the state mining association, the film industry and the law enforcement academy. On Friday, the department hosted a job fair jointly with the New Mexico Trucking Association, which was expected to have about 50 job openings, Martinez said.

In September, the state will host a job fair working with the state branch of Associated General Contractors of America to find work for veterans with construction backgrounds. “We’re trying to cover as many bases as possible,” Martinez said.

The federal government pays half the salary for vets during on-the-job training.

Back at Hyde Park, chain saws in hand, the Returning Heroes crew is focused currently on thinning trees around the ranger station. “We’re here creating defensible space for the park to protect the structures from wildfire,” said Lindsey Quam, the Returning Heroes program manager.

Officials say the Hyde Park project also is another step in the years-long effort to protect the neighboring Santa Fe Municipal Watershed, a ridge away to the south, from a high-intensity fire, the kind that burns so hot it bakes the hills and could threaten the city’s two municipal reservoirs.

The work in and around the 17,200-acre municipal watershed and in nearby Hyde Memorial State Park isn’t designed to stop fires from happening. It’s designed to slow fires down and keep them low to the ground. These low-intensity fires are easier and safer for firefighters to control.

The Hyde Memorial State Park thinning project protects a watershed identified by the State Forestry Division as one of 14 statewide at high risk of a high-intensity fire that could have catastrophic impacts on the land and nearby communities. Work to protect and restore the watershed is funded from a $6.2 million capital outlay appropriation signed in 2014 by Gov. Martinez.

The Returning Heroes crews will have plenty to keep them busy.

None of the wood from the Hyde Park is wasted. Some will be chipped and used in landscaping state parks, Quam said. The firewood is sent to the state’s prisons for use by Native American prisoners in ceremonies.

The crew members also learn about forest ecology while thinning. When they start on the larger 80-acre project later this year, a biologist will survey 10 acres at a time to ensure they aren’t cutting trees with nesting birds. The plan is to thin out some of the ponderosa pine, but leave all the aspen and oak.

“Any time that we do a project, we always try to keep a mix of diversity, mixed species, mixed age,” Tudor said. “That’s what true restoration should be.”

Hesch said working with the program gives the crew a shared mission. “A great brotherhood and sisterhood exist in the firefighting community,” Hesch said. “That’s similar to the military. We take care of our own.”


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